The Marvel UK Transformers comic occupied a special part of my young heart for a fair while back in the 80′s (I often think all boys of a certain era were actually built with a small Transformers shaped compartment in their heart) The weekly adventures of the Robots in Disguise came somewhere between Battle Action Force (UK GI Joe to you colonials) and 2000ad. What could have been a shonky toy cash in title had a unique flavour all of it’s own, mainly thanks to the stalwart work done by premier Trans-scriber Simon Furman. Under his guidance the Transformers mythos grew into something rich and strange. And violent. Very very violent… Alongside such Brit comics luminaries such as John Wagner and Pat Mills, Furman was one of the most prolific writers of the 80′s carving out a niche writing for Marvel UK, taking the Transformers mythos and running with it. Once the animated movie was released the strip really hit it’s stride, with the addition of Galvatron, Cyclonus and Scourge and the rest of the 2006 mob. Not to mention a certain freelance peace-keeping agent…yes?
Along with Transformers, Furman also created the wonderful robot bounty hunter Death’s Head, as well as the super violent futuristic sports mercenaries Dragon’s Claws. For a while Marvel UK became a hotbed of fun new comics that provided a well of young British comics talent the chance to cut loose.
Soon after Furman started working in American comics for Marvel, IDW, Dreamwave and Dynamite. He has also worked in animation, computer games and continues to write Transformers to this day. An extremely personable chap, with an extensive knowledge of exploitation movies, Simon kindly agreed to do a Mindless interview. Read on…yes?
1) I guess we should begin at the beginning. How did you get your break in comics?
SF) Early 80s, I was working for IPC Magazines, in their once thriving comics department. As assistant editor on new kid’s horror comic SCREAM I had the opportunity to pitch in with a few scripts of my own, largely to dig us out of deadline hell. I took over (and concluded) a strip called ‘Terror of the Cats’, which was my first published work (in Scream #3). After Scream folded, it was directly on to Marvel UK and TRANSFORMERS.
2) Marvel UK became a place for a number of young British writers and artists to work in a certain amount of creative freedom. Some prominent creators started there – Bryan Hitch, Steve White, Geoff Senior, Steve Yeowell and Richard Starkings to name but a few. What was your experience of working for them at the time?
SF) Back then, there were effectively just two routes into the larger (US) comics industry, either via Marvel UK or 2000AD. So lots of writers and artists came through Marvel’s doors and onto bigger, better or just different things. Bryan Hitch, Barry Kitson, Will Simpson, Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell, Andy Lanning, Dan Abnett, Doug Braithwaite, David Hine (I could go on) all got their real mainstream starts at Marvel UK. Of them all, I probably worked the closest and most often with Geoff Senior, on Transformers and Dragon’s Claws and Death’s Head (and everything inbetween), and that work/social relationship still endures to this day (though Geoff is working almost exclusively in advertising these days: he has own outfit, Smudge Pencil). The Marvel UK days were wild and creative and brimming with talent and enthusiasm for the medium. I doubt I’ll ever see the like again. It was a great, great place to be, and it (and Transformers) also gave me my first big US break.
3) Well it had to happen – the T word! Obviously you’ve become firmly associated with the Robots in Disguise and to my mind you ARE the premier Transformers scribe. What do you enjoy about writing them? What are the drawbacks?
SF) There’s obviously a degree of typecasting (or whatever the equivalent is for writers) to contend with, and I think people sometimes assume Transformers is all I’ve ever done and forget that I’ve written (among others) Alpha Flight, She-Hulk, Death’s Head, What If?, Turok, Robocop, Terminator, Ronan and, currently, StarCraft. Plus, all the TV animation stuff, audio dramas and books! But, that said, my association with Transformers has made me incredibly privileged and opened up numerous doors along the way, as well as providing a reasonably steady income for the better part of 25 years (on and off). I long ago stopped kicking and struggling against the association and accepted the renown it’s brought me. It also helps that I never seem to tire of Transformers and its many worlds and characters. Every time I sit down to write a TF story it’s somehow fresh and exciting still.
4) You created a whole mythology and world for the Transformers. You were basically their God (and you certainly put them through the mill!) Was it fun to have such virgin territory to play with? How much freedom did you actually have?
SF) I’ve been lucky enough to have a whole lot of freedom with Transformers, more than one usually gets with a licensed set of characters/toys. In the first instance, at Marvel UK, we were largely allowed to do as we please, even craft their origin. All eyes were on the Marvel US comic, which was written at the time by Bob Budiansky. It was Bob who got saddled with having to introduce about 20 new characters per issue and still form a cohesive, character-driven story around them, while we, for the most part, went our own merry little way. We got more freedom still when we adopted the ‘future’ cast of characters (Galvatron, etc) from the animated Transformers movie, allowing us to demonstrably compartmentalise our stories and push out in wild and different directions in between the necessary bouts of US reprint. And by the time I took over from Bob on the US comic, Hasbro simply weren’t as invested in the whole brand, so once again we could just go crazy with the whole scale and reach of the thing. And then, latterly, thanks to IDW, I got a chance to restart everything, to create a TF continuity from the ground up. Again, both they and Hasbro were hugely accommodating. I’ve been lucky!
5) When I was younger I vividly remember reading ‘Time Wars’ which was the culmination of years of story building, struck by the melodrama and absolute seriousness of it. It was so violent and shocking – I loved it! What was your favourite story you wrote during your stint on the title?
SF) It’s hard to separate some of these stories in my mind, because they were such an evolving, ongoing entity. Time Wars was just the culmination of years of storylines, across the likes of Target: 2006, Fallen Angel, Legacy of Unicron and many more in between. I made no concession throughout for the age of our audience, I simply wrote the kind of gritty, violent action stuff that fuelled my imagination, layering in some quite weighty themes and character development. And of course, with robots, you can get away with so much more than flesh and blood. I vividly remember describing the scene in Time Wars were Galvatron, already missing half his face and screaming, spitting mad, is torn apart by the time vortex, and stressing that his eyes are literally sucked out of his head. Lee (Sullivan) did such a great job with the visuals for that! So, yeah, picking individual stories is hard, but probably Target: 2006, just because that one started it all!
6) Sorry, I know this is a lazy question, but I have to ask what you made of the recent movie? (Personally you can’t beat the animated movie, but that may well be to do with the amazing synth score and power ballad-heavy soundtrack…)
SF) I also think the animated movie will never be topped. It blew me away, and I was an adult at the time. We took what it set up and ran and ran with it. There’s so much to love about that movie. With the live-action movies, I actually think they’re great for the audience they’re aimed at, which I’ve come to see isn’t me. Both movies seemed to throw out story and characterization in favour of noise and bludgeoning action. If you’re an eight-year-old weaned on computer games, it’s probably the greatest movie-going experience out there. But I personally find the relentlessness of them a little wearing (especially at two and a half hours plus). There’s still lots to admire and appreciate, though, not least the truly amazing robots themselves (and how thoroughly and convincingly they’re immersed in the real world footage) and the simply stupendous amount of vision that allows Michael Bay to stage such complex, protracted battle scenes in the first place. But at least the movies leave lots of opportunity to take the core characters and trappings and sculpt something more far-reaching, which is what I’m doing now in the Tales of the Fallen series (and beyond) for IDW.
7) Moving away from Transformers, you also created a number of original characters for Marvel UK: namely Dragons Claws and Death’s Head. I love Deaths Head – his idiosyncratic speech pattern and strange issues with his profession. Dragon’s Claws had a real exploitation vibe about it. What can you tell me about their genesis and your experience of writing them?
SF) Dragon’s Claws and Death’s Head sprang from an initiative of Marvel UK’s to produce US format comics (sadly, before there was a proper distribution system). From the start, we knew we didn’t want to do superheroes, there were enough of those out there, so we plumbed the sort of anarchic, very-British sci-fi vein that 2000AD had always excelled in, pushing for action/adventure with a twist. Dragon’s Claws was a fusion of Rollerball, a movie I’d loved as a kid, and exactly that dystopian but tongue-in-cheek future 2000AD had been mining for years. I really liked the idea of a violent game as a mass panacea for a society hovering on the edge of total anarchy. Death’s Head was more of a happy accident and a case where the initial visual of the character pushed me to re-think (ie. ‘try harder’). Originally intended as a throwaway character, when Geoff Senior’s art arrived on my desk, we all knew Death’s Head was destined for bigger and better things. So while I went back to the script and dropped in the character and vocal tics, Marvel laid the initial groundwork for his eventual migration to his own title.
8) You made the jump to writing American comics soon after the cancellation of Transformers UK, not only on the US title but also on Alpha Flight. You continue to produce work for Marvel and IDW. How did/do you find working for the American market?
SF) I was weaned on both UK and US comics, so I understood the workings of both. Working on a mainstream superhero book for Marvel was something of a dream come true, and therefore I really threw myself into it, gave it my all. I thought, prematurely, I was in and would stay in, but the mid-90s saw the sudden implosion of the comics market and work just dried up. But, thankfully, Transformers began its big comeback shortly thereafter, and also opened a door into the world of TV animation, and (via Dreamwave and currently IDW) Transformers comics made a comeback too. Right now, I’m where I like to be, with a foot in both markets, UK and US, along with some stuff that’s not comics at all.
9) You’ve also written for various animated TV series, including Transformers: Beast Wars, and X-Men: Evolution. How different did you find it to comics scripting? What were the benefits – beyond pay!
SF) For a start, you’re writing stuff that actual people are going to have to say out loud. That immediately makes a difference. A lot of dialogue that works fine in comics just sounds bad spoken out loud, so you have to put more emphasis on the actual way people speak (even if they’re robotic animals). The main pro of TV animation work is the elevated pay scales, but the con is the lack of creative control over the finished product. With comics, you can be pretty sure that what you write will end up on the printed page (give or take), but in TV animation you do a script, maybe a polish, and then you see it on the screen… and sometimes it’s only partially recognisable as what you originally wrote. My best experience was on a show called Roswell Conspiracies: Aliens, Myths and Legends. Great fun! An entire 40-episode story arc, of which I wrote maybe eight or nine episodes! In the course of that show, I actually influenced the direction it took and a lot of what I wrote made it to the screen.
10) I know that you were involved with the ill-fated Dreamwave comics line, for whom you created the original series Necrowar. You also work regularly with Andy Wildman on original material. For someone primarily involved with licensed characters is it fun to cut loose with your own personal projects?
SF) Ah, creator-owned projects. It’s something I’d dearly love to do more of, but rarely seem to have the time (among all the licensed, company-owned stuff). That said, I (and a co-writer) have started writing original movie scripts, which is proving to be very creatively fulfilling. We’ve written two so far, with one optioned and the other under serious consideration right now. We’re about to embark on a third. The movies are pretty much taking up what spare time I have around the more ongoing work, but getting some kind of original comics project up and running is still something I’d like to do at some stage. Couple of ideas I’m kicking around at the moment, so we’ll see.
11) I know you’ve recently finished up a second Terminator series for IDW – what else is on the horizon?
SF) Yeah, Terminator Revolution is done and dusted, but I’d love to do more. Really enjoyed dabbling in that particular licensed arena. I’ve also diversified into books recently, some of which have been Transformers-related (such as DK’s Transformers: The Movie Universe and Titan’s Transformers: Art of the Movies… though the latter still doesn’t have a confirmed release date) and some not, like Rad Robots, my light-hearted observational round-up of automatons from film, TV, literature, toys, comics and more. Comics-wise, I’m currently writing Transformers: Tales of the Fallen for IDW (with a new series to follow after that’s done), StarCraft (based on the computer game) for Wildstorm, which, though I’m not really a gamer, I’m loving, because it’s such a big, well-thought-out sci-fi/war universe to play around in with a lot of very cool characters and concepts. I’m also providing the original strip content for Titan’s Transformers UK comic/magazine. Oh, and the aforementioned movie work. Phew!
Thanks very much to Simon Furman for the interview. Absolutely top chap. Go check out his website.